Criticism of the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights

On July 8, 2019, the U.S. State Department launched the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights.[1] This new Commission deserves both commendation and criticism. Its positive points were discussed in a prior post. Now we look at the many legitimate criticisms of this new institution.

Erroneous Premise

The basic premise for the Commission was stated by Secretary Pompeo In his remarks at its launching, when he alleged, without proof, that “international institutions designed and built to protect human rights have drifted from their original mission” and that they and nation-states “remain confused about their respective responsibilities concerning human rights.” Therefore, the Secretary asserted that “the time is right for an informed review of the role of human rights in American foreign policy” and that the Commission was charged with straightening all of this out.

This premise, however, is erroneous. The body of human rights law today is very extensive as developed by U.S. and other national and international courts and institutions. For example, an edition of a major U.S. book on the subject, primarily for law students, has 1,259 well-documented pages plus a 737 page collection of selected human rights instruments and bibliography.[2] Like any large body of law developed by different courts and institutions over time, there will be an ongoing effort to eliminate or minimize inconsistencies. But an informed knowledge of this body of law and institutions would show that these international institutions have not “drifted from their original mission.” Nor are nation states confused about their responsibilities in this area.

Secretary Pompeo’s pious assertions of the need to ascertain what human rights mean were castigated by Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist. “There is no need to reinvent the wheel, Mr. Secretary. A lot of bipartisan and international consensus, consolidated over the postwar decades, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and other horrors, exists as to what human rights are and what America’s role in defending them should be.”[3]

Pompeo also has claimed that the continued violations of human rights shows that there is confusion about the law. That is also false. Yes, there continue to be violations, showing the inherent weaknesses of human beings and institutions, but not confusion about the law. If this were a valid argument, then would ridiculously claim that the laws against murder and other forms of homicide were confusing because such horrible acts still occur.

Erroneous Reference to Natural Law

The U.S. Declaration of Independence refers generally to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and states that men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is the purported basis for the Commission’s Charter saying it will provide the Secretary with “fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).

Secretary Pompeo made this same argument in his July 7 article in the Wall Street Journal, where he said, “When politicians and bureaucrats create new rights, they blur the distinction between unalienable rights and ad hoc rights created by governments.”

Roger Cohen, a New York Times columnist, criticized this reference to the concept of natural law and natural rights, circa 1776, by reminding us that ”these ‘natural rights’ at the time, of course, included chattel slavery and the dehumanization of black people, as well as the disenfranchisement of women.” In short, “the ‘natural’ rights of 1776 are not the human rights the [U.S.] helped codify in 1948 [in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights].”

Moreover, Secretary Pompeo and others at the State Department apparently forgot to read the very next sentence of the U.S. Declaration: “That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” (Emphasis added.) In other words, the U.S. government subsequently was established by the U.S. Constitution “to secure these rights [mentioned in the Declaration of Indepence]” and its later enactment of human rights statutes and regulations are based upon “the consent of the governed.” These are not “ad hoc” laws (a legal category not known to this attorney-blogger) as Secretary Pompeo dismissively calls them.

Similar language occurs in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “[H]uman rights should be protected by the rule of law” (Preamble); “Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms” (Preamble).[4] In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights. This point was emphasized by the Commission’s Chair, Mary Ann Glendon in her book about the Universal Declaration: “The Declaration’s principles, moreover, have inccreasingly acquired legal force, mainly through incorporation into national legal systems.”

Indeed, the New York Times contemporaneously reported with the adoption of the UDHR in December 1948, “The United Nations now will begin drafting a convention that will be a treaty embodying in specific detail and in legally binding form the principles proclaimed in the declaration.” One such treaty was the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which entered into force on March 23, 1976, which was “three months after the date of the deposit with the Secretary-General of the United Nations of the 35th instrument of ratification or instrument of accession.” (Art. 49(1)) The U.S., however, did not ratify this treaty until April 2, 1992, when the U.S. Senate granted its “advice and consent” to same with certain “understandings” and reservations, and this treaty did not enter into force for the U.S. until September 8, 1992.[5]

The U.N. system has created many other multilateral human rights treaties and other international institutions to interpret those rights, resolve conflicts among them and disputes about compliance with them.[6]

Possible Invalid Objectives

Actions and words of the current U.S. Administration have led some critics of this Commission to speculate that the Commission is a ruse to conceal the Administration’s true objectives: eliminate legal rights to abortions and other reproductive procedures and to LGBBTQI individuals. If that is the case, then the Commission is a fraud.

The Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (Dem., NY) says, “This commission risks undermining many international human-rights norms that the United States helped establish, including LGBTQI rights and other critical human-rights protections around the world. . . . [and now] the Secretary wants to make an end run around established structures, expertise, and the law to give preference to discriminatory ideologies that would narrow protections for women, including on reproductive rights; for members of the LGBTQI community; and for other minority groups.”

The American Jewish World Service through its Its director of government affairs, Rori Kramer, denounced the creation of the commission because of what it said was a religious bent to the panel. “As a Jewish organization, we are deeply skeptical of a government commission using a narrow view of religion as a means to undermine the ecumenical belief of respecting the dignity of every person, as well as the fundamental human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We fear this commission will use a very particular view of religion to further diminish U.S. leadership on human rights.”

As University of Chicago Law Professor Eric Posner observed, the Commission’s “plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influences of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th century natural law . . . . [and] an indirect endorsement of contemporary [Roman] Catholic conservative intellectuals.”

Another professor, Clifford Rob of Duquesne University, believes the Commission is “ likely to champion the ‘natural family’ and ‘traditional values,’ to claim that individual self-defense is another natural and unalienable right and to express hostility to economic and cultural rights.

Rebecca Hamilton, an Assistant Professor of Law at American University Washington College of Law and a former prosecutor for the International Criminal Court and a former employee of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia,warned that the “’natural law’ language was code for religiously-infused opposition to reproductive rights and to protections for members of the LGBTQ community.” She points out that the concept for this Commission was proposed by Professor Robert George, a “staunch opponent of same-sex marriage and co-founder of the anti-gay rights group, National Organization for Marriage.”[7]

Other Legitimate Sources of Human Rights Were Ignored

The Trump Administration’s statements about the Commission seem to be saying that only the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Independence are the only ones that count and that studying them will yield only one set of answers on the many issues of human rights. That is clearly erroneous, in this blogger’s opinion.

The Declaration of Independence, in addition to talking about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” says that they are “among” the category of “certain unalienable rights.” Thus, there are other rights in that category. In addition, there undoubtedly are times when there are conflicts among “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” and the other such rights that will need to be resolved.

Most importantly, the U.S. Declaration says “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” In other words, governments need to enact statutes and rules to protect and secure these rights, and the need for “consent of the governed” inevitably leads to arguments and disputes about the content of such statutes and rules and to the need, from time to time, to amend those statutes and rules and adopt new ones, as circumstances change as they certainly have in the 243 years since the adoption of the U.S. Declaration.

Indeed, the U.S. federal and state governments have enacted many statutes and rules to protect and secure human rights. And they should not be ignored or dismissed as “ad hoc” measures as Secretary Pompeo did in his article in the Wall Street Journal.

The Universal Declaration is subject to the same qualifications. It identifies more rights than the four specifically mentioned in the U.S. Declaration, but there undoubtedly will be conflicts among those rights that will need resolution.

Moreover, the Preamble of the Universal Declaration says that “human rights should be protected by the rule of law [outside that document itself]” and that “Member States have pledged to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” This U.N. document also proclaims “that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive . . . by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance.” In other words, there will need to be additional treaties and laws to protect and secure these rights.

The Commission’s Membership May Not Comply with Federal Law

 Under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972 (Pub. L. 92-463), “the function [of such] advisory committees [or commissions] shall be advisory only, and that all matters under their consideration should be determined in accordance with law, by the official, agency, or office involved.”[8]

Moreover, under this federal statute, the committee or commission members must be “drawn from nearly every occupational and industry group and geographical section of the United States and its territories”  and must be “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” (Emphasis added.)

Although as noted in a prior post, the resumes of this Commission’s members are impressive, some critics have questioned the balance of their views on the central issues facing the Commission..

Another federal law that may have been violated in the establishment of this Commission is the failure to seek and obtain the counsel of the Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, which is charged with championing “American values, including the rule of law and individual rights, that promote strong, stable, prosperous, and sovereign states. We advance American security in the struggle against authoritarianism and terrorism when we stand for the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press, and the rights of people to assemble peaceably and to petition their government for a redress of grievances.”

Conclusion

Therefore, contemporary advocates of international human rights need vigilantly to observe the work of the Commission, applaud its work when appropriate and critique that work on other occasions.

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[1] See these posts to dwkcommentaries.com, which contain citations to many of the references in this post: Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights? (June 16, 2019); Other Reactions to State Department’s Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 17, 2019); More Thoughts on Commission on Unalienable Rights (June 18, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Developments (July 4, 2019); U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights Is Launched (July 8, 2019); More Comments on Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 9, 2019);; The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (July 11, 2019); Additional Discussion About the U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights (July 18, 2019); The U.S. Commission on Unalienable Rights: Partial Commendation (July 19, 2019).

[2] See Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Fitzpatrick & Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy, and Process (4th ed. 2009); Weissbrodt, Ní Aoláin, Rumsey, Hoffman & Fitzpatrick, Selected International Human Rights Instruments and Bibliography for Research on International Human Rights Law (4th ed. 2009). Professor Weissbrodt also has published an online “Supplementary Materials” for the casebook.

[3] Cohen, Trump’s Ominous Attempt to Redefine Human Rights, N.Y. Times (July 12, 2019).

[4] See The Importance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (July 11, 2019).

[5] U.S. Ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 5, 2013).

[6] See the posts listed in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES), including those that identify the treaties ratified by the U.S.; those signed, but not so ratified; and those not signed and ratified by the U.S.

[7] Hamilton, EXCLUSIVE: Draft Charter of Pompeo’s “Commission on Unalienable Rights” Hides Anti-Human Rights Agenda, Just Security June 5, 2019). Just Security publishes “crisp explanatory and analytic pieces geared toward a broad policy, national/international security, and legal audience; and (2) deep dives that examine the nuances of a particular legal issue.”

[8] Federal Advisory Committee Act, secs. 2(b)(6), 5(b)(2);  Gen. Services Admin., The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA).

 

 

 

The U.S. Declaration of Independence’s Relationship to the U.S. Constitution and Statutes

The U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776, obviously preceded and in many ways inspired the U.S. Constitution of September 17, 1787. But in my three years as a student at the University of Chicago Law School, 1963-1966, and my 35 years as a practicing litigator-attorney (including some constitutional cases), 1966-2001, I never encountered the question of whether and how the Declaration should and could affect the interpretation of the Constitution.

George Will

Now noted author and commentator George Will in the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr. Will’s book, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals.”

One of Will’s recent columns extends these thoughts. He says, “the Declaration expressed, as Thomas Jefferson insisted, the broadly shared ‘common sense of the subject.’ Rather than belabor the Declaration’s (to them, unremarkable) assertions, the Constitution’s framers set about creating institutional architecture that would achieve their intention: to establish governance that accords with the common sense of their time, which was that government is properly instituted to “secure” the preexisting natural rights referenced in the Declaration.” Therefore, the “The Declaration’s role is the locus classicus [classical location] concerning the framers’ intention [and original meaning and continuing purpose], which is surely the master key to properly construing what they wrought.”[1]

Jeffrey Rosen

Jeffrey Rosen, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia and a law professor at George Washington University, shares some of the ways that the Declaration has influenced the Constitution.[2]  As President Lincoln noted in 1861, “the expression of the principle [of Liberty for All] in our Declaration of Independence . . . was the word ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it.” As Lincoln recognized, “the two documents are closely linked. From the Founding era until today, conservatives, liberals and everyone in between have agreed that the theoretical basis of the U.S. Constitution—and American political life in general—can be found in Thomas Jefferson’s” words in the Declaration, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. —That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”

However, Rosen says, conservatives and liberals often disagree about what these words of the Declaration mean in terms of government policies and laws, as has been true throughout our history. This has been true in political debates in some Supreme Court cases. For example, in last week’s case about partisan gerrymandering, Justice Kagan in dissent cited the Declaration’s statement that governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” to justify her opinion that the courts need to intervene in gerrymandering cases. On the other hand, conservatives today cite the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” to support their assertion that there is a fundamental right to life that trumps a woman’s right to an abortion.

Reactions

The notion that the Declaration is relevant to interpreting the Constitution is superficially attractive. But most of the Declaration is a bill of particulars against “the present King of Great Britain” and his “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having, in direct object, the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” Those words do not appear to be helpful in interpreting the subsequent Constitution.

More importantly for Will and other like-minded individuals, the Declaration holds “these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This apparently is the central assertions that should be used in interpreting the Constitution.

But immediately after these words, the Declaration states, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” For this blogger, those words strongly suggest, if do not require, an examination of the words adopted by the government in constitutions and statutes in order to construe those rights.

This blogger would appreciate intelligent reactions and comments on these issues as well as citations to any U.S. Supreme Court cases that use the Declaration to interpret the Constitution.

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[1] Will, To construe the Constitution, look to the Declaration, Wash. Post (July 3, 2019).

[2] Rosen, The Declaration of Independence Unites and Divides Us, W.S..J. (July 4, 2019),

Is Trump Administration Attempting To Redefine International Human Rights?

Since the end of World War II, treaties and international institutions have defined and developed international human rights and institutions, as discussed in previous posts. [1]

Commission on Unalienable Rights [2]

Now with little fanfare the U.S. State Department recently announced the establishment of  the Commission on Unalienable Rights. Here are the key provisions of its Charter:

  • The Commission will provide the Secretary of State with “informed advice and recommendations concerning international human rights matters . . . [and] fresh thinking about human rights and . . . reforms of human rights discourse where it has departed from our nation’s founding principles of natural law and natural rights.” (Para. 3) (emphasis added).
  • The Commission’s advice and recommendations will help “guide U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy decisions and actions with respect to human rights in international settings . . . [and] recover that which is enduring for the maintenance of free and open societies.” (Para. 4) (emphasis added).

The Commission will be composed of “no more than fifteen members who have distinguished backgrounds in international law, human rights, and religious liberties.” Its membership “will be a bipartisan, diverse group of men and women.”

The phrase “unalienable rights,” of course, comes from the second paragraph of the U.S. Declaration of Independence of July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added.)

At first glance this may sound like an unobjectionable reference to an important document and concept of U.S. history. But it may be much more than that. It may be an attempt by the Trump Administration to redefine international human rights, as suggested by Eric Posner, Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

Reactions of Professor Eric Posner [3]

Posner so far has been the only one to have noticed this Commission. He says “the significance of . . . [this Commission] should not be overlooked. It puts the government’s imprimatur on an assault upon one of the cornerstones of modern liberalism: international human rights.”

This conclusion, Posner argues, follows from the Commission’s name, implicitly emphasizing that these rights are endowed ‘by their Creator” and come from “natural law” and “natural rights.” This interpretation, he claims, also is suggested by the Charter’s reference to “discourse,” implying that contemporary human rights is merely talk, not law. In short, this Charter is conservatives’ “declaration of intent. Its plainly stated goal is not just to wipe away the baleful foreign influence of human rights ‘discourse’ but to revive [conservative] 18th-century natural law.”

In Posner’s opinion, the reference to natural law is an indirect endorsement of contemporary Roman “Catholic conservative intellectuals, who kept alive the academic tradition of natural law long after mainstream secular intellectuals forgot what it was —[and, therefore,] . . .  goodbye to reproductive rights and protections for sexual minorities.” Posner also claims that Robert George, a prominent Catholic intellectual, natural-law theorist, and opponent of abortion rights and same-sex marriage, played a role in the creation of the Commission. In other words, this new commission will provide “the ideological justification for the anti-abortion foreign policy that the Trump administration has undertaken”

Natural law, says Posner, can also be used by conservatives to argue for “expanded religious freedoms that override statutes with secular goals, and to push back against progressive government programs like universal health care. The ‘right to health,’ a centerpiece of ‘human rights law,’ is firmly rejected by natural-law theorists like George.

“But the mission of the commission may be even bolder,” in Posner’s opinion. ”If we take the idea of natural law seriously, it not only overrides statutes in foreign countries that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. It also overrides American laws that protect abortion rights and respect same-sex marriage. One can imagine a day when a Supreme Court justice, taking a page from [former Supreme Court Justice Anthony] Kennedy, invokes natural law — supposedly endorsed by the founders, after all, and embodied in the sacred Declaration — to vote to overturn Roe v. Wade and to prepare the path for an even holier grail, the abolition of state laws that grant abortion rights.”

“Liberals hoped that human rights, sanctified by the sacrifices of the victims of totalitarianism, would provide common ground in a world of competing ideologies. But what human rights actually helped produce was a liberal international order that has offended a great many people who do not share liberal values. The backlash began years ago in authoritarian countries, in developing countries that saw human rights as an affront to their traditions and as a mask for imperialist goals, and in highly religious countries. These countries advanced interpretations of human rights law that conform with their values or interests but made little headway against dominant elite opinion. What is new is that the government of the world’s most powerful nation [the U.S.], long acknowledged (if grudgingly) as the leader of the international human rights regime, has officially signed on to that backlash.”

Presumably this Posner argument is expanded in his recent book, The Twilight of Human Rights Law.[4]

Conclusion

Although noted author and commentator George Will is not a fan of President Trump, he probably is sympathetic to the recent trumpeting of “ unalienable rights” and “natural law” and “natural rights.” In the “Introduction” to his new book, The Conservative Sensibility, Will says “We [conservatives] seek to conserve the American Founding” with a “clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking.” Indeed, “Americans codified their Founding doctrines as a natural rights republic in an exceptional Constitution, one that does not say what government must do for them but what government may not do for them.”

Therefore, according to Mr.Will, “The doctrine of natural rights is the most solid foundation—perhaps the only firm foundation—for the idea of the political equality of all self-directing individuals..”

In retrospect, perhaps the Trump Administration has been dropping hints that something like the Commission might be coming by the State Department’s using the phrase “unalienable rights” in various statements and documents.[5]

Although this blogger has no objection to contemporary references to the language of our Declaration of Independence, he does object to the notion that this new Commission is an underhanded way to implement current political preferences of this Administration. Moreover, this blogger suggests that it is too simplistic to use notions of natural law to preempt the decisions on the previously mentioned contemporary issues.

After all, natural rights and human rights treaties can be seen as compatible allies, just as English and American common law are compatible with their respective statutes. Such multilateral treaties with provisions for implementation and amendment are drafted by committees and individual nation states are not bound by the treaties unless and until they ratify the treaties. Similarly domestic statues in the U.S. and U.K. are prepared and adopted by legislatures, often as a result of common law developments, and always are subject to subsequent amendment.

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[1]  See posts listed in the following: List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (REFUGEE & ASYLUM)List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law (TREATIES); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law: U.S. (ALIEN TORT STATUTE); List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Law U.S. (TORTURE VICTIMS  PROTECTION ACT).

[2] State Dep’t, Notice: Department of State Commission on Unalienable Rights, 84 Fed. Reg. 25109 (May 30, 2019); State Dep’t, Charter: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019); State Dep’t, Membership Balance Plan: Commission on Unalienable Rights (created: May 10, 2019).

[3] Posner, The administration’s plan to redefine ‘human rights’ along conservative lines, Wash. Post (June 14, 2019).

[4] Posner, The Twilight of Human Rights Law (Oxford Univ. Press, 2014-).

[5]  State Dep’t, Secretary Tillerson’s Testimony before Senate Appropriations Committee (June  13, 2017) (“Our mission is at all times guided by our longstanding values of freedom, democracy, individual liberty, and human dignity. The conviction of our country’s founders is enduring: that all men are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks With Secretary General of the Community of Democracies Thomas Garrett (Sept. 17, 2017) (“In our Declaration of Independence, our founders boldly stated that all are endowed by their creator with the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (Emphasis added); State Dep’t, [Secretary Tillerson’s] Remarks at the “Conversation on the Value of Respect” Event (Jan. 12, 2018) (“It was the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who wrote that we are all endowed with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, Remarks on the Release of the 2017 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (April 20, 2018) (these annual reports “are a natural outgrowth of our values as Americans. The founding documents of our country speak to unalienable rights, fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law – revolutionary concepts at the time of our founding that are now woven into the fabric of America and its interests both at home and abroad”); State Dep’t, The State Department Role in Countering Violent Extremism (May 30, 2018) (“America is committed to individual rights, and we recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. We are all, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); State Dep’t, 2018 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (Mar. 13, 2019) ((Secretary Pompeo’s Preface :”The United States was founded on the premise that all persons “are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Our Constitution secures these unalienable rights . . . in the First [and Fifth] amendments.” ((emphasis added); State Dep’t, Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo At the Celebration of Israel’s 71st Independence Day (May 22, 2019) (both the Israel Declaration of Independence of 1948 and the U.S. Declaration of Independence of 1776 “speak of central ideas that are ‘self-evident’ – In the American case, it’s the truth that men are created equal and have rights that are unalienable”) (Emphasis added).

 

 

 

Important Questions for Judge Kavanaugh’s Confirmation Hearing 

                                                                                                                                        Judge Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, is supposed to be an “originalist” or someone who bases judicial decisions on the “original” meaning of the U.S. Constitution and statutes. The logic of this philosophy is impeccable. The framers of the Constitution and its amendments and the Congress in statutes make the law and judges seek to ascertain their original intent and then apply the original intent to decide cases.

Thus, some of the important questions for his confirmation hearing revolve around this question: how do you attempt to determine what the original intent of constitutional words or phrases is?

Important guidance on this problem is provided by a recent decision by the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland regarding the original meaning of the constitutional word “emolument” and by new searchable databases of various writings from the era of the framers of the Constitution.

The Meaning of the Constitutional Word “Emolument”[1]

On July 25, 2018, the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland denied President Trump’s motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint alleging that his “actual or potential receipt, directly or indirectly, of payments by foreign, the federal, and state governments  (or any of their instrumentalities) in connection with his and the Trump Organization’s ownership of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.” violates the Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

The key issue for the court in its 52-page well-reasoned and well-written opinion denying the dismissal motion was the original meaning of the world “emolument” in these two constitutional clauses::

  • The Foreign Emoluments Clause. “And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them [the United States], shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince, or foreign State.” (U.S. Const., Art I, sec. 9, cl. 8 (emphasis added).)
  • The Domestic Emolument Clause. “The President shall, at stated Times, receive for his Services, a Compensation, which shall neither be increased nor diminished during the Period for which he shall have been elected, and he shall not receive within that Period any other Emolument from the United States, or any of them.” (U.S. Const., Art II, sec. 1, cl. 7 (emphasis added).)

After first reviewing the parties’ different interpretations of the text of these clauses, the court’s opinion began “with a strong presumption that the term ‘emolument’ should be interpreted broadly to mean ‘profit,’ ‘gain,’ or ‘advantage,’ essentially covering anything of value.” (P. 22.)

The court then turned to the “Original Public Meaning”  of the word since the Supreme Court has held that as the Constitution was “written to be understood by the voters at the time,” it is important to consider “the meaning of the term ‘emolument’ against the backdrop of what ordinary citizens at the time of the Nation’s founding would have understood it to mean.” (Id.) This analysis reinforced the court’s strong presumption from the text that the term had a broad meaning. Important in this regard for the court were the broad use of that term in the following (id. at 22-30):

  • An “article by Professor John Mikhail of Georgetown University Law Center in which, following exhaustive research, he concluded that “every English dictionary definition of ‘emolument’ from 1604 to 1806” includes Plaintiffs’ broader definition.”[2]
  • Drafters of state constitutions;
  • Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England; and
  • The Framers themselves.

Further support for the court’s conclusion was found in Interpretations of the term by the U.S. Office of Legal Counsel  and Comptroller of the United States.

 The Meaning of the Second Amendment’s Right To “Bear Arms”

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states the following: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” (Emphasis added.)

The U.S. Supreme Court in  District of Colombia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570, 576-626 (2008) held, 5-4, that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protected “an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” The majority opinion in Heller by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia concluded that the phrase “bear arms” in that amendment “was not limited to the carrying of arms in a militia.” (Id. at 586.)

Disagreement with that conclusion has been voiced by Dennis Baron, Professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The basis for this conclusion is the result of a search for the term “bear arms” in the following two new databases compiled by the Brigham Young University College of Law:[3]

  • The Corpus of Founding Era American English is composed of 96,615 texts with nearly 144 million words (as of 07/29/18) in documents used, 1760-1799, by ordinary people of the day, the Founders, and legal sources, including letters, diaries, newspapers, non-fiction books, fiction, sermons, speeches, debates, legal cases, and other legal materials.
  • The Corpus of Early Modern English, which is composed of 40,300 texts with nearly 1.3 billion words from 1475-1800.

The search of the first database yielded 281 instances of the phrase “bear arms” while the second search produced 1,572 instances. After eliminating about 350 duplicates, there were about 1,500 separate occurrences of “bear arms” in the 17th and 18th centuries, and only a handful did not refer to “war, soldiering or organized, armed action.” Therefore, Baron concludes, these databases confirm that the natural meaning of “bear arms” in the framers’ day was connected with militias or the military.

According to Baron, further support for this conclusion is found in the fact that the phrase “bear arms” “has never worked comfortably with the language of personal self-defense, hunting or target practice.” Here, Baron referred to this 1995 comment by historian Garry Wills: “One does not bear arms against a rabbit.”

And in 1840, said Baron, in an early right-to-bear-arms case, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated: “A man in the pursuit of deer, elk and buffaloes, might carry his rifle every day, for forty years, and, yet, it would never be said of him, that he had borne arms, much less could it be said, that a private citizen bears arms, because he has a dirk or pistol concealed under his clothes, or a spear in a cane.”

Moreover, Baron pointed out that in the oral arguments  in the Heller case itself, U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement, who was advocating for the invalidity of the District of Colombia gun law, initially said that “bear arms” was meant to carry them outside the home. But he was interrupted by Associate Justice David Souter, who said, “But wait a minute. You’re not saying that if somebody goes hunting deer he is bearing arms, or are you?” Clement responded, “I would say that and so would [James] Madison and so would [Thomas] Jefferson.” But Souter was not persuaded and asked, “In the 18th century, someone going out to hunt a deer would have thought of themselves as bearing arms? I mean, is that the way they talk?” Clement finally retreated with this statement: “Well, I will grant you this, that ‘bear arms’ in its unmodified form is most naturally understood to have a military context.” Obviously the phrase is not modified in the Second Amendment.

New Databases of Written Materials from Framers’ Era

In addition to the previously mentioned databases compiled by the Brigham Young University College of Law, a similar project is being undertaken by a legal historian at the University of Chicago Law School, Alison LaCroix , and a linguist, Jason Merchant, the Lorna Puttkammer Straus Professor, Department of Linguistics and Humanities at the University of Chicago. Their project seeks to utilize the vast collection of historical texts available through Google Books to enable users to study in a more rigorous and sophisticated way how language and meaning have changed. This project, Professor LaCroix, said, “meets originalism on its own terms.”[4]

Questions for Judge Kavanaugh

Therefore, this blogger suggests that at the confirmation hearing, Judge Kavanaugh be asked at least the following questions:

  1. How do you attempt to determine the original meaning or intent of a word or phrase in the U.S. Constitution?
  2. What sources do you use in such attempts?
  3. Do you use computer databases of written materials from the framers’ era?
  4. If so, which ones? Why those? How many texts are in those databases?
  5. If not, why not?
  6. Have you ever used the BYU Law School’s Corpus of Founding Era American English?
  7. If not, why not?
  8. If yes, for what issue? Result?
  9. Have you ever used BYU Law School’s Corpus of Early Modern English?
  10. If not , why not?
  11. If yes, for what issue? Result?
  12. If you were confirmed to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, would you be reluctant to overrule one of its own precedents that, in your judgment, erroneously interpreted the original intent or meaning of a constitutional word or phrase?
  13. If you had been on the Court in the 1950’s, for example, would you have been reluctant to overrule Plessy v. Ferguson?
  14. If you are confirmed, would you be reluctant to overrule the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Second Amendment’s “bear arms” phrase in District of Columbia v. Heller?

=========================================

[1] Order, District of Columbia v. Trump, Case No. 8:17-cv-01596-PJM (D. Md. July 25, 2018); Opinion, District of Columbia v. Trump, Case No. 8:17-cv-01596-PJM (D. Md. July 25, 2018);  LaFraniere, In ruling against Trump, Judge Defines Anticorruption Clauses in Constitution for First Time, N.Y. Times (July 25, 2018); Racine, Frosh & Eisen, Trump’s Emoluments Trap, N.Y. Times (July 26, 2018); Marimow, O’Connell & Fahrenthold, Federal judge allows emoluments case against Trump to proceed, Wash. Post (July 25, 2018); Barbash, Trump’s ‘emoluments’ battle: How a scholar’s search of 200 years of dictionaries helped win a historic ruling, Wash. Post (July 27, 2018); Editorial, The framers worried about corruption. Their words may now haunt the president, Wash. Post (July 27, 2018). The judge in this case, Senior District Judge, Peter J. Messitte, holds a B.A. degree from Amherst College (1963) and a J.D. degree from the University of Chicago Law School (1966), where he was a classmate of this blogger. He was appointed to the District Court by President Clinton in 1993. In 2008 he took senior status, but carried a full caseload through 2011.

[2] Mikhail, Abstract: The Definition of ‘Emolument” in English Language and Legal Dictionaries, 1523-1806 (June 30, 2017).

[3] Baron, Antonin Scalia was wrong about the meaning of ‘bear arms,’  Wash. Post (May 21, 2018); Brigham Young University Law School, Corpus of Founding Era American English; Brigham Young University Law School, Corpus of Early Modern English; Baron, Guns and Grammar: the Linguistics of the Second Amendment.

[4]  Allen, Alison LaCroix Leads New Law and Linguistics Project, Univ. Chicago Law School News (Feb. 2, 2015).

 

 

The Joy of Researching and Writing About Edward B. Burling and Joseph Welch

Previous posts have reviewed many aspects of the lives of Edward B. Burling, a prominent Washington, D.C. attorney, and of Joseph Welch, a prominent Boston attorney. (See Appendices A and B.) Those posts are the result of extensive research over many years and in many places besides Internet research on my home computer. Now I share how that research and writing has brought joy to my life. [1}

In 1982 I took a sabbatical leave from my Minneapolis law firm (then Faegre & Benson; n/k/a Faegre Baker Daniels) to teach a course about law at my alma mater, Grinnell College, and in my spare time I examined materials in the College Archives about these two gentlemen.

While on a business trip to Boston in 1985 I found spare time to examine a collection of Joe Welch Papers at the Boston Public Library. While focusing on those relating to the Army-McCarthy Hearings, I happened upon letters between Welch and Burling.

In 1986 I returned to Boston to attend the Harvard Law School’s Summer Program for Lawyers and discovered  in Harvard’s collection of the papers of Learned Hand, an eminent federal judge and one of my legal heroes, that he and Burling had been law school contemporaries and life-long friends. This further spurred my interest in Burling as I read their extensive correspondence. On this occasion I also visited Welch’s law firm and interviewed some of the other lawyers who were involved in the Army-McCarthy Hearings.

When I retired from the active practice of law in the summer of 2001, one of my future projects was to review all of the information that I had gathered and write articles about the two gentlemen, and I mentioned this project in an essay about retirement that was posted on the Internet by another law school friend as part of materials for a lawyers’ seminar.

In 2005 I was inspired to finish these papers when I received a totally unexpected call from Professor Roger Newman, the biographer of Hugo Black and a member of the faculty of Columbia University. Newman said that he was the editor of the forthcoming Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law and asked if I would be interested in writing short biographies of Welch and Burling for that book. Newman said he had discovered my interest in these men from the just mentioned essay on the Internet. I said that I would be glad to do so.

I then retrieved my materials, did additional research and wrote the two 500-word biographies. (This Biographical Dictionary, which was published in 2009 by Yale University Press, was the first single-volume containing concise biographies of the most eminent men and women in the history of American law who had devised, replenished, expounded, and explained law. See Yale University Press, The Yale Biographical Dictionary of American Law (ISBN 978-0-300-11300-6),

These sketches, however, barely scratched the surface of what I wanted to say about Burling and Welch.. As a result, I did further research, including examination of several collections of original papers at the Library of Congress. My research about Burling and Welch now has been documented in multiple posts to this blog.

My interest in these two men was sparked by my sharing with them growing up in small Iowa towns, graduating from Grinnell College and prestigious law schools and becoming lawyers in major law firms in different cities and by meeting Burling in 1959 and hearing Welch speak at Grinnell in 1957. My research and writing about them enabled me to use my legal skills in projects that were personally important to me, rather than those that were driven by clients and courts. The research also produced many thrills of discovery, including some totally unrelated to these two men.

I am grateful that I have found great joy in doing this research and writing.

=============================================

[1] An earlier version of this post was published as Adventures of a History Detective (April 5, 2011).

Posts about Edward B. Burling to dwkcommentaries.com (Appendix A)

Katherine Graham’s Connections with Harry Hopkins and Edward B. Burling (Feb. 13, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/13/katharine-grahams-connections-with-harry-hopkins-and-edward-b-burling/

Edward B. Burling’s Early Years in Iowa, 1870-1890 (Feb. 17, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/17/edward-b-burlings-early-years-in-iowa-1870-1890/

Edward B. Burling’s Years at Harvard University, 1890-1894 (Feb. 18, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/18/edward-b-burlings-years-at-harvard-university-1890-1894/

Edward B. Burling: The Chicago Attorney, 1895-1917 (Feb. 19, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/19/edward-b-burling-the-chicago-attorney-1895-1917/

Edward B. Burling: The Federal Government Attorney, 1917-1918 (Feb.20, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/20/edward-b-burling-the-federal-government-attorney-1917-1918/

Edward B. Burling: The Prominent Washington, D.C. Attorney, 1919-1966 (Feb.21, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/21/edward-b-burling-the-prominent-washington-d-c-attorney-1919-1966/

Edward B. Burling’s Life-Long Friendship with Learned Hand (Feb. 22, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/22/edward-b-burlings-life-long-friendship-with-learned-hand/

Edward B. Burling: The Character of the Man (Feb. 25, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/25/edward-b-burling-the-character-of-the-man/

The Joy of Researching and Writing About Edward B. Burling and Joseph Welch (Feb. 26, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/26/the-joy-of-researching-and-writing-about-edward-b-burling-and-joseph-welch/

Posts About Joseph Welch to dwkcommentaries.com (Appendix B)

Joseph Welch Before the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 14, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/06/14/joseph-welch-before-the-army-mccarthy-hearings/

The U.S. Army’s Hiring of Attorney Joseph Welch for the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 8, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/06/08/the-u-s-armys-hiring-of-attorney-joseph-welch-for-the-army-mccarthy-hearings/

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Nemesis: Attorney Joseph Welch (June 4, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/06/04/u-s-senator-joseph-mccarthys-nemesis-attorney-joseph-welch/

Attorney Joseph Welch’s Performance at the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 6, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/06/06/attorney-joseph-welchs-performance-at-the-army-mccarthy-hearings/

President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Involvement in the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 12, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/06/10/president-dwight-d-eisenhowers-involvement-in-the-army-mccarthy-hearings/

President Eisenhower’s Secret Campaign Against Senator Joe McCarthy (July 27, 2017), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/07/26/president-eisenhowers-secret-campaign-against-senator-joe-mccarthy/

Joseph Welch After the Army-McCarthy Hearings (June 12, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/06/12/joseph-welch-after-the-army-mccarthy-hearings/

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Encounters Langston Hughes at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater (May 13, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/05/13/u-s-senator-joseph-mccarthy-encounters-langston-hughes-at-minneapolis-guthrie-theater/

Legal Ethics Issues in the “Anatomy of a Murder” Movie (June 27, 2012), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2012/06/27/legal-ethics-issues-in-the-anatomy-of-a-murder-movie/

The Joy of Researching and Writing About Edward B. Burling and Joseph Welch (Feb. 26, 2018), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2018/02/26/the-joy-of-researching-and-writing-about-edward-b-burling-and-joseph-welch/

 

 

 

 

Senator Chuck Grassley’s Outrageous Conduct Regarding the Supreme Court Nomination of Merrick Garland 

 

Iowa Senator Charles (“Chuck”) Grassley, the current Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is following the dictates of the Senate Majority Leader and his fellow Republican, Mitch McConnell, to not do anything with respect to President Obama’s Supreme Court nomination of Merrick Garland. Grassley’s conduct with respect to this nomination stands in sharp contrast to the rational argument for the nomination recently offered by President Obama as discussed in a prior post and in the White House’s website for the nomination.

Grassley started out this “do-nothingism” on what was a high note for him. Immediately after the announcement of the Garland nomination Grassley said “Article II, Section 2 [of the Constitution grants] the power to nominate an individual to the Supreme Court . . . to the President and authority is given to the Senate to provide advice and consent.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it describe how the Senate should either provide its consent or withhold its consent.” In addition, according to the Senator, “A majority of the Senate [the Republicans] has decided to fulfill its constitutional role of advice and consent by withholding support for the nomination during a presidential election year.”[1]

Grassley, therefore, has not submitted any questionnaire to the nominee, has refused to schedule any hearing on the nomination and has promised not to submit the nomination for a vote by the entire Senate. In addition, Grassley initially even refused to extend the courtesy of meeting with Judge Garland. Subsequently, however, Grassley said he would meet with Garland to tell him why Grassley was not supporting the nomination.[2]

Grassley Speech on Senate Floor

On April 5, Grassley escalated his obstructionism by an intemperate speech on the Senate floor criticizing Chief Justice Roberts for saying, 10 days before the death of Associate Justice Scalia and thus before the controversy over the Garland nomination: “When you have a sharply divided political divisive hearing process, it increases the danger that whoever comes out of it will be viewed in those terms.  You know if the Democrats and Republicans have been fighting so fiercely about whether you’re going to be confirmed, it’s natural for some members of the public to think, well, you must be identified in a particular way as a result of that process.” [3]

According to Grassley, “the Chief Justice has it exactly backwards.  The confirmation process doesn’t make the Justices appear political.  The confirmation process has gotten political precisely because the court has drifted from the constitutional text, and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences. In short, the Justices themselves have gotten political.  And because the Justices’ decisions are often political and transgress their constitutional role, the process becomes more political.”

“In fact, many of my constituents believe, with all due respect, that the Chief Justice is part of this problem,” added Grassley. “And contrary to what the Chief Justice suggested, a major reason the confirmation process has become more divisive is that some of the Justices are voting too often based on politics and not on law.   If they’re going to be political actors after they’re confirmed, then the confirmation process necessarily will reflect that dynamic.”

This Grassley speech also criticized Roberts for trying to counter the perception by some Americans that the Court has become politicized. Said the Senator, “I think he is concerned with the wrong problem. He would be well served to address the reality, not perception, that too often there is little difference between the actions of the court and the actions of the political branches. So, physician, heal thyself.”

Reacting to this speech, Jeffrey Toobin of the New Yorker, said this speech “was close to breathtaking in its intemperate incoherence.” It included an “extended attack on Chief Justice John Roberts, who had recently expressed the unexceptional view that the Court should stay out of politics as much as possible.” According to Grassley, “The confirmation process has gotten political precisely because the Court has drifted from the constitutional text and rendered decisions based instead on policy preferences.” Presumably Grassley was referring to two cases upholding the Affordable Care Act that were written by Roberts.

An editorial in the Baltimore Sun had similar words of condemnation. It said that Grassley’s argument was “infantile” and “allows Mr. Grassley or any other self-appointed expert on constitutional law to make a similar claim every time a justice interprets the law in a manner that is not lock-step with the critic’s own. . . . Shame on Senator Grassley for suggesting that Justice Roberts has somehow betrayed the institution when it is the judiciary chairman who seems to be bent on rewriting the Constitution — not only to limit President Barack Obama’s authority to fill a court vacancy but now to imply that the chief justice has somehow sabotaged the court. . . . Iowa voters, take note: Your six-term senator deserves to be put out to pasture, if only for sheer soft-headedness.”[4]

Grassley Op-Ed in Des Moines Register

On April 10, in reaction to a Des Moines Register editorial objecting to the Senate’s obstruction of the nomination and probably to Iowa voters objecting to his “do-nothingism,” Grassley published an op-ed in that newspaper” to defend his position.[5]

He asserted that it was absurd to argue that somehow “the federal judiciary is debilitated without a ninth Supreme Court justice for a brief period of time.  As the [changing] numbers [of the Justices over time] make clear, the size of the court as Congress designed it over the years has frequently changed, and hasn’t left the court in disarray.” He continued, “The temporary impact of a split decision pales in comparison to the damage an election-year political brawl would cause the court and the country . . . . A nomination considered during this heated campaign season would be all about politics, not the Constitution.”

Grassley-Garland Breakfast Meeting

The Grassley-Garland meeting did happen over breakfast in the Senate Dining Room on April 12. After the one-hour breakfast, Grassley tweeted that the meeting has been “pleasant” as he explained to Judge Garland why the Senate would not be moving forward with his nomination. Later the Senator’s staff released a statement: “The meeting was cordial and pleasant. As he indicated last week, Grassley explained why the Senate won’t be moving forward during this hyper-partisan election year. Grassley thanked Judge Garland for his service.” [6]

Grassley ‘s Reaction to President Obama’s Statement About the Nomination

Later that same day, April 12, the Senator released a statement to be made on the Senate floor in response to President Obama’s comments at the University of Chicago Law School that were discussed in an earlier post.[7]

“[U]nlike the President, I think it’s a bad thing that there’s politics in judicial decision-making these days. Politics in judicial rulings means that something other than law forms the basis of those decisions. It means the judge is reading his or her own views into the Constitution.  Unlike the President, I believe the biggest threat to public confidence in the court is the justices’ willingness to permit their own personal politics to influence their decisions. “

According to Grassley and contrary to the President, “what’s in a judge’s ‘heart,” or their personal “perspective [and] ethics’ have no place in judicial decision-making” and ‘is totally at odds with our constitutional system.   We are a government of laws and not a government of judges.”

Said Grassley, “Politics belongs to us—it’s between the people and their elected representatives.  It’s important that judges don’t get involved in politics. That’s because, unlike senators, lifetime-appointed federal judges aren’t accountable to the people in elections.  It’s also because when nine unelected justices make decisions based on their own policy preferences, rather than constitutional text, they rob from the American people the ability to govern themselves.”

Conclusion

A negative assessment of the obstructions to the Garland nomination by Chairman Grassley and other Republican Senators has been provided by 15 former presidents of the American Bar Association (ABA) and by this blogger.

The ABA leaders asserted in a letter to Senate leaders that “there is no election-year exception” to the Senate’s advice and consent responsibilities in the Constitution, that Chief Judge Merrick Garland is “one of the most outstanding judges in the country” and that leaving the seat vacant “injects a degree of politics into the judicial branch that materially hampers the effective operation of our nation’s highest court.” Therefore, say the bar leaders, “The president has fulfilled his constitutional duty, and it is time for the members of the United States Senate to fulfill theirs by holding a fair hearing and timely vote.”[8]

Grassley’s previously cited op-ed made what, in this blogger’s opinion, is an absurd argument. He contended that with a vacancy on the Court this election year, “the American people have a unique opportunity to engage in a serious discussion about the meaning of our Constitution and the way justices read it.” So far there has not been any such serious discussion of this or any other issue and it is unrealistic to expect that there will be any difference during the remaining six-plus months of this election.

Moreover, Grassley who is not an attorney and who, to my knowledge, has never studied constitutional law, proceeds from an over-simplistic view of how cases present constitutional questions and how courts resolve them. He also ignores the Senate’s own interpretation of the relevant constitutional provisions by its consistent practice of holding hearings and votes on nominations even in election years. Finally Grassley errs in suggesting that issues of constitutional law should be submitted to the average voter, similarly unversed in constitutional law. Instead the constitutional system submits selection of judges to the President and the Senate, neither of which originally was elected directly by the people.[9] This system of judicial selection is one way to preserve the independence of the judiciary.

Although I now live and vote in Minnesota, I am a native Iowan who obtained education in the public schools of the Iowa town of Perry and at the state’s Grinnell College. I, therefore, wrote to Senator Grassley on March 20, 2016. After reciting my Iowa background, I stated:

  • “I have long believed that most Iowans were reasonable, fair-minded people and that their elected representatives reflected this admirable trait.”
  • “You, however, disappointingly have dispelled this belief by your enlistment in the Republican Senate leadership campaign to deny a hearing and a Senate vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate on advising and consenting to President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the United States Supreme Court.”
  • “In so doing, you ignore that in 2012 President Obama won reelection for a term of office that does not end until January 20, 2017 with a popular vote of 65.9 million, which was nearly 5.0 million more votes than those received by the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. You also ignore that under Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution the President has the power and the duty to “nominate . . . Judges of the supreme Court” and that the Senate has the power and duty to provide its “Advice and Consent” to such nominations.”
  • “Remember this is the Senate Judiciary Committee, not the Republican Judiciary Committee nor “your” Judiciary Committee.”
  • “I hope during this Senate recess that your Iowa constituents will voice similar views to you and that you change your position on this important issue and authorize the Judiciary Committee to proceed with its consideration of this nomination.”

To date I have not received any response to this letter from the Senator.

====================================

[1] Grassley, Grassley Statement on the President’s Nomination of Merrick Garland to the U.S. Supreme Court (Mar. 16, 2016)

[2] Reuters, Senator Grassley to Meet Garland Despite Opposition to Nominee, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2016); Shear, Meeting Merritt Garland to Tell Him Why G.O.P. Won’t Hold Hearings, N.Y. Times (April 4, 2016).

[3] Grassley, Grassley Floor Statement on the Public Perception of the Supreme Court (April 5, 2016); Assoc. Press, Capitol Hill Buzz: Grassley Takes on Chief Justice Roberts, N.Y. Times (April 5, 2016); Toobin, The Supreme Court Extremism of Clarence Thomas and Chuck Grassley, New Yorker (April 8, 2016).

[4] Editorial, Grassley v. Roberts, Baltimore Sun (April 10, 2016).

[5] Grassley: Grassley: Sky won’t fall with one less justice, Des Moines Register (April 10, 2016).

[6] Herszenhorn, Senator Grassley and Judge Garland Meet, and Rehash the Obvious, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016);Reuters, Senate Judiciary Chairman Grassley Tells Garland No Hearings, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016); Assoc. Press, Senate Judiciary Chair Grassley Has Breakfast with Garland, N.Y. Times (April 12, 2016).

[7] Grassley, The Supreme Court and the Remarks of President Barack Obama at the University of Chicago (April 12, 2016).

[8] Assoc. Press, Ex-American Bar Association Chiefs Push for a Vote on Garland, N/Y. Times (April 11, 2016); Mascaro, Top GOP senator meets Obama’s Supreme court pick to tell him there will be no vote, Chic. Tribune (April 12, 2016).

[9]  U.S. Senators were not elected by popular vote of the people until 1913 with the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution requiring such method of election. (U.S. Senate, Direct Election of Senators.) The President and Vice President, originally and still true today, are not elected by popular vote, but instead by electors in the Electoral College. And the first time there was a popular vote for electors was in 1824 with the procedure for the Electoral College established by the Twelfth Amendment to the Constitution that was adopted in 1804.

 

 

 

President Obama Continues To Demonstrate His Intelligence, Eloquence and Strong Record

Obama ChicagoOn April 7th President Obama returned to the University of Chicago Law School, my alma mater and where he taught for 10 years. He did not give a speech; instead he engaged in a conversation with Professor David Strauss and with current law students. [1] (To the right is a photograph of the President at the Law School.)

 

The stated purpose of this visit was for the President to stress the importance of the U.S. Supreme Court and of the U.S. Senate proceeding with its normal processes for evaluating a presidential nominee to join the Court and thus to provide a hearing and a vote on the President’s nomination of Chief Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

The President did just that.

After pointing out the importance of the federal judiciary in general and the Supreme Court in particular in our system of government, the President stressed that Merrick Garland was an “eminently qualified jurist,” a characteristic not disputed by anyone in either major political party. Obama added that in selecting nominees to the federal courts, he wanted to find out about their personal lives as windows to their character. For Judge Garland, Obama was impressed by the nominee’s impromptu defense of a classmate’s right to free speech in speaking against the Vietnam War and Garland’s careful investigation of the Oklahoma City’s bombing tragedy and his empathy for the victims and their families.

Responding to a question from Professor Strauss, the President suggested that liberals should not be disappointed in the choice of Judge Garland because the role of the courts was only rarely to engage in broad societal change. “The courts are a terrific shield; they are not always a very effective sword,”

Obama added, “If you start getting into a situation in which the process of appointing judges is so broken, so partisan that an eminently qualified jurist cannot even get a hearing, then we are going to see the kinds of sharp partisan polarization that have come to characterize our electoral politics seeping entirely into the judicial system. And the courts will be just an extension of our legislatures and our elections and our politics. And that erodes the institutional integrity of the judicial branch. At that point, people lose confidence in the ability of the courts to fairly adjudicate cases and controversies. And our democracy can’t afford that.”

Mr. Obama warned that Republicans’ stance on this nomination could have lasting effects. If he were succeeded by a Republican, Obama said, Democrats would be unlikely to give a new nominee an easy path to confirmation, potentially leaving the seat unfilled for an extended period.

Watching the President’s informal session at the Law School, I again was impressed by his intelligence, eloquence and very personable and disarming manner.  Later I lamented that this intelligence, eloquence and engaging manner were lacking in so many of the current candidates for the presidency.

I also lament that the current presidential campaigning ignores the amazing economic performance of the U.S. during the Obama Administration: [2]

  • The U.S. economy has added jobs for 72 months straight.
  • Unemployment is down to 5 percent.
  • The U.S. is not in a recession and a massive recession does not loom.
  • The auto industry just had its best year ever.
  • The economy is growing.
  • Most Americans like their jobs and get satisfaction from them.
  • Wages are too slowly rising — but they are going up.
  • The average gap in economic satisfaction between the upper and lower thirds in income is lower than it was during the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Clinton or George W. Bush years, according to the respected Index of Consumer Satisfaction.
  • Nothing has dimmed Americans’ desire to innovate and make technology work for them.
  • According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, employers are even more determined to provide health benefits than before the Affordable Care Act took effect. The percentage of adults under 65 with employer-based insurance held firm for the last five years after steadily declining since 1999.
  • More than 16 million previously uninsured people now have health insurance.

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[1] White House, President Obama Participates in a Conversation about the Supreme Court and Our Country’s Judicial System (April 7, 2016) (video of the conversation); Shear, Obama Revisits Law School to Give a Supreme Court Lecture, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2016); Ellperin & DeBonis, To press his Supreme Court nominee’s case, Obama returns to his academic roots, Wash. Post (April 7, 2016); Tau, Obama Says Garland Fight Putting Federal Court System’s Legitimacy at Risk, W.S.J. (April 7, 2016); Gillespie, Obama Returns to the Law School, University of Chicago Law School (April 7, 2016).

[2] McFeatters, And now for the good news about America, StarTribune (April 7, 2016)